Monday, November 5, 2012

"The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin

I had been dying to read The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin for several months after I saw it in a magazine.  I was with a friend in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble and saw it on the shelf.  As I do with most books that I want to buy, I quickly snapped a picture of the front cover with my phone.  That way I have the photo, title, and author of the book right there on my phone if I need to look it up.  And as soon as I got my next B&N member coupon, I set off to the store knowing exactly what I wanted to buy.


Although the book wasn't exactly what I thought it was going to be, I did realize that it would be something I would like from the very first page.  Right there, staring me in the face, was my biggest fear besides death (or maybe that's why I'm afraid of dying):

I was in danger of wasting my life.

Those eight words scare the crap out of me.  And if any book I can read can help me NOT waste my life, then I'm all for reading it.  So I jumped in with both feet.

In order not to feel too overwhelmed with completely trying to change her life in one day and making that last all year, Rubin chose to focus on tackling one area of her life each month.  The book is divided up into chapters for each month.

January's goal was to "Boost Energy."  This is something I struggle with.  I know that I don't eat well all of the time.  I don't work out as much as I should.  I don't get to sleep at a decent time, get too little sleep during the week, and too much sleep on the weekends.  I am also HORRIBLE about making time to relax.  I know that keeping tension in my body not only stresses me out, but drains my energy as well.  I keep making "resolutions" that I will change all of this.  I say to myself "Today is Thursday, I'll start this on Sunday since it will be a new week" or "Today is the 23rd day of the month.  I'm so close to next month that I'll start next month" or the all-used "It's almost New Year's Day, so I'll make a fresh start for the new year."  I constantly next-day my life away.  I just have to remember that tomorrow is THE day I need to start.

Another topic broached in January was to toss, restore, and organize.  I'm one of those people that feel cluttered inside if I am surrounded by clutter outside.  It has been my goal to get this entire house completely organized, every square inch cleaned, some decorating projects tackled, and get rid of clutter by the end of the year.  I'm giving myself a big deadline because that leaves room for life to happen in the meantime.  I tackled our master bathroom last night.  Now that all of the surfaces are bright, shiny, and organized, it allowed me to see some little decorating projects I can do.  Nothing major, but enough to make an impact.  And decorating.....THAT makes me happy.

February's topic was "Remember Love."  Without revealing everything in the book, I know I am guilty of doing some things that Rubin mentions in this chapter.  What really stood out for me in this chapter was the concept of "feeling right."

"Feeling right" was a trickier concept:  it was the feeling that I'm living the life I'm supposed to lead. "Feeling right" is about living the life that's right for you - in occupation, location, marital status, and so on.  It's also about virtue:  doing your duty, living up to the expectations you set for yourself.

"Aim Higher" was the topic for March.  In order to honor this goal, I did create a blog.  I used to write a lot as a child and it was one of the things that I was great at.  Unfortunately, writing has been one of those things where life got in the way and we parted ways.  Starting the blog allows me to express myself, post photos, document our lives, and connect to other people.  It's something small, but something that I know will make me happy.

For April, Rubin's goal was to "Lighten Up."  One thing that I need to work on more is to acknowledge the reality of people's feelings.  I know I'm horrible at this.  Most of my life seems like the "Jeanie Show."  I'm trying to make more of an effort of putting myself in someone else's shoes since I would want the same done to me.  Also, Rubin decided to make more time for projects as part of her goal for the month.  I have to admit, I have been good at this lately.  I love arts, crafts, creating, and decorating.  Creativity has been flowing through me lately, especially since I want to do a lot of decorating on the cheap.  I've also had several good art ideas lately.  I can't wait to break out the canvas and create something beautiful.

I didn't have to worry too much about the topic for May to "Be More Serious About Play."  I'm a very silly person and say a lot of silly things.  I keep my friends, my coworkers, and Pete with smiles on their faces.  So I didn't really need a lot of help in that department.

I could see that June's topic of "Make Time For Friends" was going to be the topic I needed the most help with.  I need to be better at writing down people's birthdays and not relying solely on Facebook to tell me when to wish someone a happy birthday.  Along with that, I know that I need to make the effort to make phone calls instead of just quickly typing in "Happy Birthday!"  In this world of texts and Twitter and Facebook, people don't call each other as much anymore.  And it's so thoughtful when someone does take the time to make that call.  It's kind of like homemade presents and cards for me.  They are my favorite because it shows that someone took time out of their busy life to make something specifically for you instead of dropping by a store and picking something up.  I will admit, I am fairly good (at least I think so) of showing up for people.  I know how much it means to me when people show up for me and I try to do the same for others as well.  I try to carve the time into my schedule because it's important to me.

I'm also taking up the June challenge to make three new friends.  I took a golf class in college, bought some new clubs a few years ago, and have yet to truly play with them.  I recently signed up to take some golf instruction classes again, so that will allow me some good opportunity to meet new people.  And getting back into yoga.  I used to go every single week.  It's one of the few things in life that can calm me and center me.  And I miss it.  I need the peace and serenity it brings, a maybe a few other fellow yoga lovers to meet.

Rubin also lists "personal commandments" from some of her blog readers in the book.  Some that really stuck with me were:

  • Talk to strangers
  • Stop the venting and complaining
  • Go outside
  • Stop buying useless crap (no comment from you, Pete)
  • Give thanks for the ordinary and extraordinary
  • Create something that wasn't there before
  • Make footprints: "I was here"
  • Be the kind of woman I want my daughters to be
  • Imagine the eulogy: how do I want to be remembered?
  • What would I do if I weren't scared?
  • Start where you are
  • Play the hand I'm dealt
Definitely going to try to take action on some of those personal commandments.

July's topic is a little touchy to some people.  "Buy Some Happiness" doesn't necessarily mean going on major shopping sprees (although those do make me happy).  The best example of this is my friend Christina.  Christina and I would meet every Wednesday night at Starbucks for girl talk time with each other where we would catch up on the latest happenings in our lives.  I would go to Starbucks, get a hot chocolate, and gulp it down.  Before I knew it, my hot chocolate, and $3 from my wallet, were gone.  Christina would get a coffee drink and you could just see how much she relished and enjoyed the drink.  She savored every moment of that drink and you could see with every sip how that drink was lightening her mood and bringing a smile to her face.  Yes, girl time with a close friend also does that, but you could see the effect that one small coffee drink had on her.  And although my $3 hot chocolate, gulped down too quickly, was probably a waste of money, that $3 coffee drink meant way more to her and brought much more happiness to her.  There are certain things that are like "comfort foods" to me.  And curling up in a chair with a hot chocolate at Starbucks is "comfort food" for me.  And if I've had a bad day, spending that $3 and savoring that hot chocolate along with a good book are completely worth it to bring some peace, joy, and a smile to my face.

"Contemplate The Heavens" was the topic of August.  Like Rubin, I do read a lot of memoirs of catastrophe.  Reading these books makes me realize that I'm lucky for not having attempted suicide, not having to live through the murder of my entire family, not having to be a drugged-up child soldier in a third world country, not having a botched ice-pick lobotomy done to me as a child.  It's grim.  But it also makes me thankful for my life.  I also started keeping a gratitude notebook (I read about this somewhere prior to Rubin's book).  I do some volunteer work.  And sometimes I don't feel like what I do is worthy or makes an imprint on other people's lives.  I sometimes feel that I don't have enough (not materially) to contribute to someone else's life. But then I get moments....moments where someone tells me that something I said has made a huge impact on their life.  A few words, or sharing my life story and the wisdom gained through it, has given them hope.  By sharing my opinion or viewpoint has given them a different way to look at things.  I can look into their eyes and actually see that my life has made a positive impact on theirs.  And those moments leave me so full of meaning and purpose.  They allow me to KNOW deep in my heart that one person's life can make a huge impact.  And those moments.....I need those.  My life may be sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.  But the glasses through which I sometimes view the world are clouded and foggy.  I need those words.  I need that gratitude notebook with quotes from others, or a funny photo that made me laugh, or a favorite quote that puts a smile on my face.  I can use that when I am feeling kind of blah or ungrateful to make me realize how lucky I am to be here where I am today.

Part of contemplating the heavens for Rubin meant imitating a spiritual master.  I have so much respect for His Holiness The Dalai Lama.  I have read many of his books.  His wisdom brings me so much peace and makes my heart light.  He's always happy, always at peace, and always so compassionate toward others.  Just looking at his photo lowers my blood pressure and brings such a stillness to the chaos in my body.

September's topic was to "Pursue a Passion."  One of my favorite hobbies is reading.  And I haven't done a lot of that this year.  I normally try to read one book per week.  However, sometimes other things can get in the way.  Things that don't mean as much to me such as watching TV or playing around on the internet.  In the past month, I've tried to get back into my reading.  I've finished a book that I was struggling to read and devoured another book in a few hours.

I am also trying to "Forget About Results" and "Master a New Technology," both sub-topics of September.  I'm always trying to work on my photo editing skills without beating myself up too much.  It's nice sometimes to just tinker around in Photoshop without expecting a certain outcome.  Also, this blog is a way for me to mess around with new technology.  I've got to learn some more HTML to do some things on the blog, so the blog will slowly change up as I learn new things.

"Pay Attention" was the focus for October.  Pete and I are wanting to learn Italian together, so that's a good way to "Stimulate the Mind in New Ways" as part of that month's focus and also a good way to ward off dementia and create new pathways in the brain.  Also, "Keeping a Food Diary" will help me in my goal to lose weight, get healthier, and nourish my body with good food instead of junk.

In November, we are supposed to "Keep a Contented Heart."  "Finding an Area of Refuge" was part of my focus during that month's challenge.  I need to keep positive areas of refuge in my brain where I can go to in order to change my mood or lift my spirits when I want think negatively.  Also, giving positive reviews can slowly change your attitude and the way that you view certain things.

December was "Boot Camp Perfect."  For me, this meant kind of reviewing the year and making sure that I've implemented not everything from the book for every month, but some of those more important things that really stuck out to me.

Overall, this book was great.  Once again, not what I expected, but definitely a book everyone should give a chance.

Here is the synopsis from Barnes & Noble's website:

Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. "The days are long, but the years are short," she realized. "Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter." In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.
In this lively and compelling account of that year, Rubin carves out her place alongside the authors of bestselling memoirs such as Julie and JuliaThe Year of Living Biblically, and Eat, Pray, Love. With humor and insight, she chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.
Rubin didn't have the option to uproot herself, nor did she really want to; instead she focused on improving her life as it was. Each month she tackled a new set of resolutions: give proofs of love, ask for help, find more fun, keep a gratitude notebook, forget about results. She immersed herself in principles set forth by all manner of experts, from Epicurus to Thoreau to Oprah to Martin Seligman to the Dalai Lama to see what worked for her—and what didn't.
Her conclusions are sometimes surprising—she finds that money can buy happiness, when spent wisely; that novelty and challenge are powerful sources of happiness; that "treating" yourself can make you feel worse; that venting bad feelings doesn't relieve them; that the very smallest of changes can make the biggest difference—and they range from the practical to the profound.
Written with charm and wit, The Happiness Project is illuminating yet entertaining, thought-provoking yet compulsively readable. Gretchen Rubin's passion for her subject jumps off the page, and reading just a few chapters of this book will inspire you to start your own happiness project.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"The Time Keeper" by Mitch Albom

I've read several of Mitch Albom's books.  So I know that when I saw The Time Keeper in the Bestseller section of Barnes & Noble, I didn't even need to read the cover to know that I wanted to buy it.  I started reading it yesterday while I was waiting in line to early vote.  I finished it early this afternoon.  It was a great book, and I couldn't put it down.  I would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes the works of Mitch Albom or needs a reminder to enjoy life and not worry about the constraints of time.



From the author who's inspired millions worldwide with books like Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven comes his most imaginative novel yet, The Time Keeper—a compelling fable about the first man on earth to count the hours.
The man who became Father Time.
In Mitch Albom's newest work of fiction, the inventor of the world's first clock is punished for trying to measure God's greatest gift. He is banished to a cave for centuries and forced to listen to the voices of all who come after him seeking more days, more years. Eventually, with his soul nearly broken, Father Time is granted his freedom, along with a magical hourglass and a mission: a chance to redeem himself by teaching two earthly people the true meaning of time.
He returns to our world—now dominated by the hour-counting he so innocently began—and commences a journey with two unlikely partners: one a teenage girl who is about to give up on life, the other a wealthy old businessman who wants to live forever. To save himself, he must save them both. And stop the world to do so.
Told in Albom's signature spare, evocative prose, this remarkably original tale will inspire readers everywhere to reconsider their own notions of time, how they spend it and how precious it truly is.

"Drunken Angel" by Alan Kaufman

I used to keep up with the books I read with a list on Facebook, but I think I am going to start keeping track of them here instead.  It's always nice for me to be able to look back and see what I've read during the year, but also to share books with other readers and whether or not it's something I recommend.  I love taking recommendations from others as well.

I started out earlier in the year reading Drunken Angel by Alan Kaufman.



A Heartbreakingly Honest Story of Triumph Over Addiction
Son of a French Holocaust survivor, Alan Kaufman drank to fill the huge hole in his heart, wrecking himself and everyone in his path. In Drunken Angel, the poet and critically acclaimed writer recounts with unvarnished honesty the story of the alcoholism that took him to the brink of death, the PTSD that drove him to the edge of madness, and the love that brought him back. With his estranged daughter as inspiration and two unforgettable mentors for support, Kaufman got into recovery at age 37, taking full responsibility for nearly destroying himself, his work and so many loved ones along the way. Kaufman minces no words as he looks back on a life pickled in self-pity, self-loathing and guilt, delivering a lacerating, cautionary tale of a life wasted and reclaimed.
In league with the handful of gut-wrenching, life-changing, and enduring books about the tortures of addiction, Drunken Angel probes the consciousness of an addict to expose the true horror of alcoholism. Alan Kaufman’s searing memoir is a surreal reading experience full of stylistic acrobatics that speak to the genius of a writer nearly lost.

I will admit....don't judge a book by its cover.  However, the cover just captivated me and made me curious.  I saw it was a memoir, which is one of my favorite genres of books.  I started the book around December 2011 or January 2012.  I remember I was still reading it in February.  I got about 200 pages into this book and couldn't bear to read anymore.  Honestly, it was boring me to death.  I put the book aside and didn't even consider picking it up until this past October.  I was determined to finish it this time.  I started over again since it had been so long since I last read it.  I did have the same problem trying to get through some of the slower parts of the book.  However, being determined to push through, it started to pick up when he began his recovery from alcohol addiction.  It turned out to be a pretty decent book.  And if you can get through the slow parts, I think it's a good read.

Two of my favorite quotes from the book.  One happens to also be on the inside back of the book cover.

"When you have become what you wish for through your own experience, then you will truly be free."

"Why an angel?  Because I believe that, in time, that is what we become in sobriety, if we last long enough, to the end.  Not the winged kind, no.  Not some haloed cupid or sword swinger but a kind of flawed angel, without wings, that belongs to no religion but rather to a species of human heartbreak unlike any other known.
Alcoholics and addicts are unlike any other people I've ever met.  I am unlike most people.  A blazing mutant of some kind.  A wondrous freak.  In my mind lurks an urge that will be with me to the end, to put a bottle to my lips and drink myself to death." (found on the inside back cover of the book)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reflections of who they still are.....

I feel very uncomfortable walking into a nursing home. When I see people rolled into the halls who can barely take care of themselves, I also see the Grim Reaper with his hand on their shoulder just waiting for his moment. As horrible as that sounds, in my mind, that's what I see. I see loneliness, loss, regret, fragility, deterioration, and my own fear of death.

And in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it's so easy to walk past those who aren't hustling and bustling. It's so easy to put aside to another day those that we think in our minds will always be there sitting and waiting for us. It's easy to forget that those people in those nursing home halls have 80 or 90 some years of history behind them. It's easy to forget that those people had rich lives that without the hustle and bustle we have to deal with in our technologically driven lives may have been richer and more well-lived than our own.

I saw the series "Reflections" by photographer Tom Hussey tonight by clicking on a website link on a whim.  In each photo, an elderly person is looking in a mirror.  Looking back at them is a reflection of their younger self.  The photos are hauntingly beautiful.  They remind me that those people that I rush past in the nursing home who look like a shell of what used to be....well those people still are. They are in there.

That soldier who bravely fought in the war....he's still in there. He has a story of brotherhood, of atrocities, of valor, of patriotism.

That beautiful cabaret singer who all the men loved and swooned after....she's still there. She has a story of ambition, of perseverance, of pure unadulterated talent.

That strong Southern wife and mother....she's still there. She has a story of hardship, of motherly love, and of eternal hope.

One of my favorite quotes by Marilyn Monroe states "Beneath the makeup and behind the smile, I am just a girl who wishes for the world." Well, beneath the wrinkles and behind the thin skin lies a person who HAS the world. They hold 80 or sometimes 90 or God-willing even 100 years of the world inside. And that is beautiful.

I'm sad that for so long, I have allowed myself to pass by this soldier, this mother, this father, this doctor, this artist, this farmer, this musician and only see the Grim Reaper over their shoulder. It's our duty as witnesses of this world and bearers of history to hear their words. To capture their stories. To share their legacy.

I will never forget an assignment I had for my AP American History class where we had to interview someone that had lived through WWII and the Great Depression. I got to interview my grandmother and I am so thankful for that assignment. I was able to ask questions that I normally would never have asked and hear answers that I am so thankful to have written down to pass down one day to my children and my grandchildren about this strong, faithful, loving, steadfast woman.

When I was around 19 years old, I sat in church and cried as I listened to the story of a woman in my church who, along with her sisters, had been on the verge of death as a child from a serious illness, had a miraculous recovery from a blessing by a stranger, found unwavering faith in her religion, and became a strong mother, a strong wife, and a upstanding member in this community. As the congregation sat captivated, I sat amazed that I had lived next to this woman my whole life, that I carried her bloodline within my body, and that I didn't even know this story about my grandmother's life. I am so grateful to that church member who sat down with her and wrote that part of her story. For although I knew she was an amazing woman on my own, I may have never known the part of her story of how she came into her faith which molded every aspect of her life and along with her family was the thing she cherished most.

So next time you see an elderly person and want to rush past, even if you don't have a lot of time.....stop. Look at the person. Imagine what their life was like. Who they were. Who they are still. For beneath the wrinkles and behind the thin skin still lies that person.

And if you have a little time on your hands, sit down and talk to them.  Whether family or stranger. Talk to the soldier who saw his fellow brothers die and still courageously fought on. Talk to the political activist who helped gain acceptance and rights for fellow humans regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Talk to the single mother who worked two jobs to raise four children on her own. Talk to the immigrant who moved here with nothing to his name, became a citizen, and made a life for himself and his family in America. Talk to the teacher who overcame poverty and a bad school system to became a teacher herself so that she could provide a great education to other children in need.

Look into their eyes. See that sparkle? That's their story. And if you take the time to find out more, you might find out that it's a medal of honor or a sequin, too.

(All photos below are from photographer Tom Hussey)